Missouri is set to become an embarrassing outlier in the decades-long struggle against drunk driving.
Beginning in July, Missouri law enforcement will be allowed to spend only $1 of federal funding on sobriety checkpoints. Every other dollar available — about $19 million — will go toward alternate measures, with a heavy push toward unannounced saturation patrols that put officers on the lookout for impaired drivers.
Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Shell Knob, sponsored the newly passed legislation after looking at data provided by the Missouri Department of Transportation and concluding that saturation patrols yield more arrests per dollar spent than checkpoints.
But that’s a limited view of the data. What Fitzpatrick didn’t take into account is the deterrent effect of sobriety checkpoints, which is difficult to precisely measure.
In fact, an explanation that Fitzpatrick and other supporters have offered for all but dismantling this current police practice is one of the key reasons checkpoints are effective.
Supporters of the change to state law point to social media. They believe that too many people learn about the checkpoints via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and then simply avoid the checkpoint area.
Yes, some do.
But when those alerts go out, many people also think twice about drinking and driving. They set up a designated driver. They take Uber instead. DUI checkpoints are successful in part because they do compel some people to change their behavior before they ever get behind the wheel.
That’s an overriding goal of checkpoints. Not simply racking up more arrests per dollar spent. There is also a huge benefit to society in deterring people from driving after drinking. Police departments have typically used both saturation patrols and checkpoints, which are most effective when they are deployed frequently and are publicized.
The state’s timing is terrible. After years of decline, drunk driving fatalities increased slightly in 2015, with 10,265 deaths in the U.S. Many fear the death toll will rise again when the 2016 data are finalized.
Missouri now joins just 12 other states that either prohibit or choose not to use sobriety checkpoints. Critics of checkpoints tend to make the same limited arguments cited in Missouri to shift funding to saturation patrols. Opponents have also raised questions about the fairness of stopping drivers randomly, an argument that is undercut by a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision finding checkpoints constitutional.
At checkpoints, law enforcement officers don’t stop every car, just every third or fourth, for example. It’s a random check unless someone gives officers another reason to think they are breaking the law. And it’s a strategy that allows officers to make a visible statement against drunk driving and also find people with outstanding warrants and other infractions.
Fitzpatrick might think that he has done Missourians a favor. Yes, drivers will be far less likely to be momentarily delayed by a sobriety checkpoint because the state has precluded police from using federal dollars for the operation.
But by removing this tool from law enforcement’s toolbox, he may have just increased our chances of being hit by a drunk driver.